Heard the one about 50 or so lady lawyers from Oak Park and River Forest who provide legal aid to organizations in need for free, and prefer working that way?
Well, soon everyone will because this is no joke.
It is the successful concept of Oak Parker Donna Peel, an attorney and stay-at-home mom who, in 2011, formed the West Cook Pro Bono Network, a collection of volunteer attorneys who want to give back but on their own terms. All projects are assigned on a team basis, and chosen to accommodate their geographic location and school-pickup times.
"I came up with the idea [in 2009] because I personally had spent quite a lot of money on babysitting and transportation in order to volunteer my own legal services at Chicago firms," explains Peel. "I looked around me and saw other moms who were also active or inactive attorneys who wanted to do pro bono work and realized that I was not alone."
Eventually, Peel put out a "here's my idea" call to a few friends and procured help from the Public Interest Law Initiative to find and vet organizations who would provide local training opportunities, malpractice insurance and an entrée to pro bono clients.
Within six weeks, 10 "mom" attorneys joined in. When she posted a recruitment blurb on a local website ("Mom Mail, from families, for families"), it started taking off.
Since then, Peel et al, has incorporated, and its charitable status is pending.
Pro bono works
Jill Brady, 37, is tag-teaming with a partner on an ongoing immigration issue while taking a sabbatical from work to raise her 20-month-old daughter.
"I thought, 'Hey that is a great group to stay active and actually use my degree and not fall out of the legal profession completely,'" says Brady, noting that she joined because she "didn't really want to cut myself out of having a job later."
When time allows, she works on the Violence Against Women Act petition project for the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, helping "female immigrants prepare a statement, fill out the paperwork it entails, and file the forms." Likewise, some of Peel's network of attorneys choose to man tables at Senior Expos to help elders complete living wills and so on while the kids are attending school, Peel says.
Sheila Pont, the group's vice president, says she and the other lawyers are "keeping their attorney muscle moving that part of the brain," while they stay home and raise children. In her case, that has been the last 15 years.
"A few of us are doing a pilot project for the Domestic Violence League," says Pont, who holds a master's in Social Work and a JD degree. "For free, we are providing assistance for women who are seeking to get an order of protection, and even though a client can do an order of protection on their own, it is a long, complicated form and, for many of them, scary to stand in front of a judge. So now they are able to have a real lawyer stand up with them."
Last October, Peel says, her team of pro bono lawyers celebrated their first 100 hours of service. Soon, she anticipates hitting 1,000 pro-bono hours.
"When you take time off to raise children, and you have an advanced degree, after a while, you just want to start using it again," she says. "So I have been able to do that and develop close relationships with other women in my situation, which has also been really rewarding."